If you rent party tents, if you are a caterer, if you rent out your property for events or maybe have a gig as a band member, then the Talbot County Council thinks you are Top Banana. Oh, and if you own a bar, that too, for sure!
Otherwise, you, your family, and the rest of us are way down on the totem pole. The County Council thinks nothing of putting our health at risk and jeopardizing our long-term economic recovery from this pandemic so long as the wedding venue and bar business is not disturbed. Follow this story and decide for yourself.
In a letter to the Council on July 13th, the County Health Officer, Dr. Frieda Wadley, advised the Council that “we have become a hotspot for COVID 19” with infections increasing “from 111 to 188 cases in seventeen days.” Dr. Wadley highlighted one of the big problems: applications for large gatherings, noting, “… these events put our residents at an increased risk of COVID 19 infection…” The next day, with plenty of press coverage, Governor Hogan sent a letter addressed to all of the County Councils, Liquor Boards and Health Officers in the State stressing COVID problems emanating from many bars and restaurants and large social gatherings. (As a result, Anne Arundel and other counties promptly limited the size of indoor and outdoor gatherings (e.g., 25 and 50 people respectively) and prohibited people congregating at “the bar areas” of taverns and restaurants.)
The Council met on July 21st, and you’d think in view of those letters and the worrisome daily count of local cases, that someone by then would have prepared an Emergency Resolution for introduction. But no one seemed in a hurry.
Dr. Wadley and Clay Stamp, the County’s Director of Emergency Services, told the Council on the 21st that large gatherings, both indoors and out, were a big problem and that some bars and restaurants have been flouting the existing regulations. Mr. Stamp emphasized the need for balance between public health and economic activity—since none of us wants a shutdown—but noted that the “balance is askew.” Unmistakably, Stamp and Wadley were strongly urging not just strengthened enforcement of existing regulation, but, as suggested by Governor Hogan, additional regulation of bars and large gatherings.
There ensued a long exchange that reveals everything you want to know about how this Council feels about protecting you and other citizens, versus some businesses’ ability to make money. Mr. Pack began by acknowledging, “red lights are flashing,” that “we need to take action tonight,” and “kicking the can down the road is not helping.” Mr. Callahan said how much he appreciated Dr. Wadley’s and Mr. Stamp’s work, but indicated that not only was he not in favor of additional regulations, that a “civil penalty” for violating the existing regulations—i.e., a fine— “went too far.” Ms. Price said she “was not in favor of anything that costs any business any money,” and “we need not be in a rush.”
Not a single member of the Council made the speech you would have expected, about the paramount need to protect citizens, to keep cases from increasing, especially at this moment when the School Board is trying to resolve whether schools can open. It was all about the burdens of regulation on bars and social venues. Mr. Lesher finally brought the disorganized hour-long argument to an end with the suggestion that an emergency resolution be prepared by staff for the next meeting.
So, an emergency resolution arrived last Tuesday night, the 28th, and the exchanges were even more revealing and more worrisome. Dr. Wadley was first asked to speak, and she recapped the problems, especially around large gatherings such as weddings (including destination weddings with many out-of-towners in attendance).
The draft resolution (there turned out to be two, which were competing) was not made available to the public on-line or otherwise, or even described, so at first, it was difficult to follow. It turns out Mr. Lesher, following the direction indicated by Dr. Wadley, Mr. Stamp, and the Governor had submitted a proposal that limited the number of people permitted at indoor and outdoor social gatherings (albeit with blanks to be filled in after discussion) and prohibited people congregating at bar areas of restaurants, as well as a $1000 civil fine for violations. Ms. Price had drafted one much weaker.
Immediately after Dr. Wadley’s presentation, President Pack focused the discussion on the unfairness of any specific limit on outdoor gatherings such as weddings. He said he is “uncomfortable putting any number in there” and advocates a protocol where anyone wanting to have an outdoor wedding or party would apply for a permit, and Dr. Wadley’s office and the Planning Office would then meet with the applicant and assess the setup: where people would sit, where the port-a-pots would be located, where the catering stations would be and so forth. And on a case-by-case basis, a permit could be issued. (Mr. Pack and Mr. Divilio later explained that they had both heard from people who would have to cancel events if limitations went into effect).
In about a nano-second, Dr. Wadley, who is a strong woman who can obviously take care of herself, blew the whistle on that idea as pointless and ineffective and a preposterous workload burden on the Health Department, just to “respond to everyone who wants to have a party.” “We’re in a PANDEMIC,” she said, “and I’m tired of being people’s mother!” Her frustration obvious, she continued, “If you’re going to put a limit on it, put a limit on it, or don’t do anything.”
Chuck Callahan jumped right on that opening and said: “I think Dr. Wadley is telling us what we should and shouldn’t do, and its quite obvious: we don’t put a limit on it [size of gatherings], we enact a civil penalty, and we call it a day.” And after about another hour of back-and-forth, that’s exactly what happened. (Mr. Lesher’s proposal was never even introduced for lack of a second.) No limitations whatever on the size of social gatherings, no tougher restrictions on congregating in bar areas. The only imposition of a civil penalty (after a mandated first warning)—and this is not a greater penalty, but a LESSER penalty than what exists under Governor Hogan’s existing COVID Order.
Masochists can watch all of this themselves by googling “video Talbot County Council,” selecting the meeting date, and clicking on Item IV. But I assure you it is all most unsettling and makes clear that for this County Council, public safety in this COVID pandemic falls a distant second to protecting wedding venues and local bar businesses.
In the end, Dr. Wadley, clearly very frustrated with the Council’s inaction, told the Council before she abruptly left the room that “I want it on record what I thought, and then I want it on the record what you thought. You’ve used me as the bad guy, and I don’t mind being the bad guy, but I don’t want my name on that legislation.” Mr. Pack immediately assured Dr. Wadley (twice), “Your name is not on the legislation.”
Yet the Resolution has now been published, and it’s right there in the Third Recital: “…based on the request of the Talbot County Health Officer Dr. Frieda Wadley, who explained the need for greater enforcement efforts….” Shameful.
Meanwhile, Mr. Pack said he will introduce another resolution next week dealing with limitations—and ways to grant exceptions—on size of outdoor gatherings.
Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years.